US / 26 minutes / bw / ZIV Dir: Herbert L. Strock Pr: Vernon E. Clark Scr: Donald A. Brinkley Cine: Monroe Askins Cast: Broderick Crawford, William Leicester, Jeanne Baird, Michelle Ducasse, Morgan Jones, Elmore Vincent, Billy Wayne, Art Gilmore (voiceover).
When this was first aired in 1956 it came not during the Christmas period, as one might have expected, but on June 25. It was Season 1, Episode 39 of a successful series, Highway Patrol, that ran for four seasons (1955–9) and a grand total of 156 episodes. The star throughout was Broderick Crawford as Dan Mathews, head of the Highway Patrol in an unnamed state that looked uncommonly like California—not surprisingly, since the series was instigated at the suggestion of the California Highway Patrol, which is acknowledged in the opening credits and served as technical consultant for the first two seasons.
Broderick Crawford as Captain Dan Mathews of the Highway Patrol.
You can get the flavor of the series from the introductory narrative, spoken by Art Gilmore:
Whenever the laws of any state are broken, a duly authorized organization swings into action. It may be called the State Police, State Troopers, the Militia, the Rangers . . . or the Highway Patrol. These are the stories of the men whose training, skill and courage have enforced and preserved our state laws.
Of course, in real life the Highway Patrol is concerned with things like highway accidents, speeding offenses and traffic jams—not the stuff of which action-packed TV series can be made. So the makers “improved” on things a bit, with the patrol becoming involved in what we might call more mainstream crimes—rackets, murders, the usual cop-show fodder.
William Leicester as Ted Spaeth.
Such looks to be the case for a while with Christmas Story, but in fact it turns out to be a heartwarming tale fit for the season, as we’ll see, despite the warning of grimness in its preamble:
Christmastime. The holiday season. A time of merry confusion and festive excitement, long shopping lines . . . and short tempers. Stores are crowded, offices close early, highways become congested with drivers on shopping sprees and families traveling to be with friends and relatives. This Christmas, like any Christmas, the Highway Patrol went to extra lengths to curb traffic accidents and prevent holiday tragedies. But, unfortunately, all tragedies cannot be prevented with traffic controls . . .
Ted Spaeth (Leicester) is a busy architect who doesn’t spend enough time with wife Laura (Baird) and six-year-old daughter Julie (Ducasse). On December 23 he promised to be home from the office by noon in order to take Julie to see Santa so she could ask the latter for a dog. But, sure enough, by the time he actually does get home, laden with prezzies, it’s 6pm and all that awaits him is a note from Laura saying the two of them have gone off to be with her sister Sue in Silver Shores.
Wherever Silver Shores is, it’s far enough away that Laura has decided to stay overnight in a motel en route, as Ted learns in a phone call with Sue.
Billy Wayne as the motel owner, Michelle Ducasse as little Julie Spaeth, and Jeanne Baird as Laura Spaeth.
Laura finds that the Brentwood Motor Hotel has a vacancy, and books in there. But in the morning she wakes to discover little Julie has vanished, taking with her only her robe and slippers—and, as we all much later find out, her letter asking Santa to give her a doggie for Christmas.
Obviously Laura assumes her child has been abducted, and the Highway Patrol’s Dan Mathews (Crawford) and Sergeant Corey (Jones) swing into action. The early progress of the investigation is hindered because of Laura’s refusal to admit she was leaving Ted, but then one of Julie’s hankies is found with what appear to be blood spots on it.
Michelle Ducasse as Julie Spaeth.
Dan discovers from the fussy motel owner (Wayne), who’s more concerned about the “respectability” of his establishment than about the fate of the child, that there was a car parked on the opposite side of the road for a couple of hours during the night. Yes, it was Ted’s: he’d combed the parking lots of the motels along the road until he spotted Laura’s car, but then he didn’t have whatever it would have taken to throw himself on her mercy, to tell her how much he loves her.
Cue Dan berating both parents for letting their pride get in the way of a happy ending.
Jeanne Baird and William Leicester as Laura and Ted Spaeth.
That happy ending is on its way, natch, and much of its happiness is thanks to Santa Claus (Vincent):
Julie: “Santa, I know just what I want for Christmas.”
Santa: “You do?”
Julie: “Mommy and Daddy together.”
Elmore Vincent as Santa, feeding Julie some yuletide soup.
Although it all sounds a bit gooey (and, to be honest, the scene between Julie and Santa did get this website’s gorge not so much rising a bit as dancing the samba), the offering does actually work pretty well. Noirish it ain’t, obviously—for that you’ll have to come back here tomorrow and especially on Boxing Day—but it is a bit tougher about the realities of the festive season than, say, the Christmas movies Hallmark has been screening since about June.
Oh, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that at the end Julie gets her Christmas pooch.
There’s a highly informative site about the series here. And Wikipedia has a pretty good entry for Highway Patrol here, giving interesting background details . . . such as that the driving sequences had to be tailored to cope with the fact that Crawford had lost his license over a DUI conviction!
There’s a copy of this episode on the Internet Archive, but it appears to have technical problems. Here is the link for a fairly reasonable YouTube copy, and there’s a YouTube playlist of 100 Highway Patrol episodes here.